Jingle John doesn’t want a food truck.
You can’t just cook in a food truck the way Jingle John, last name Embree, wants to. Because then you still have to have your own commissary kitchen and this means you’ve got to do your cooking somewhere else. He’d rather have a little shack somewhere on the side of the road. That’s what Jingle John wants.
Pig roasts at Von Salad’s Farm on the Sawkill, pulled pork slider’s uptown at the Stockade Tavern, deep fried saltines at Darling’s in Tilson, at last count, 42-year-old Embree has made his marks locally amongst four different settings. Tonight it’s the inaugural Monday night pop-up at the Salt Box, the new bar inside the same impressive building across the parking lot from the County Courthouse in Kingston, inside which the Crown Bar used to do business. The stone stacked structure looks sturdy enough to repel even cannonballs.
Tonight Embree’s serving up pork ribs, singly with dipping sauce, cubano sliders, savory waffles, and – indispensable among his offerings – pulled pork, for which he prefers applewood smoke to any other.
“So, I’ve got fuel wood and flavoring wood,” says Embree. “The fuel wood is any kind of hardwood that’s readily available. Up here, we get a lot of white oak and actually we also have a surplus of ash wood right now, which is great hardwood. It burns hot. And currently I have a lot of ash because of that beetle called an ash borer. A lot of ash trees just fell naturally on their own. The applewood I get from friends of mine that have apple trees grown at their farms. Our cousin used to be an owner over at Bad Seed cider. And so there’s a great thing about being up here in the Hudson Valley: There’s plenty of applewood available.”
While Embree pours some waffle batter onto an iron, one of the owners of the bar, a bartender herself who moved up from the East Village, dark-haired Ama walks into the kitchen with food tickets and begins a discussion of the primacy of smoked turkey. Embree maintains the real test of any smoked meat establishment is not in its brisket or its pulled pork but in its turkey, a bird which he smokes religiously every Thanksgiving. Embree shares his earliest recipe for smoking a Thanksgiving turkey:
Put the turkey in a smoker. Drink a fifth-sized bottle of Wild Turkey with help from a friend. When the bottle is done, so is the turkey.
Embree, recalling a backyard potluck a decade ago in Crown Heights, admits the first turkey he smoked adhering to this process was badly overcooked.
“We figured as we were smoking the turkey, that we should drink some Turkey, too,” says Embree. “That’s right. And the two of us polished off that bottle of Wild Turkey. It was the polite 80-proof version.”
The 42-year-old has since refined his method.
The ember becomes a flame
In this, the post-pandemic year 2023 of our hopes and fears, counting somewhere in the neighborhood of 13,000 generations of humans lived and died there are few living, breathing archetypes left to celebrate. The Hunter, for instance, once the pride and necessity of a tribe or village, is now despised in the cafés of the city as cruel and bloodthirsty. The Livestock Farmers too are mocked as lame hicks and clods. Overwhelmingly, because this is a dream of modernity through which we are only sleepwalking, the city dweller prefers the bounty offered up by the factory farms, without the muss or the fuss the product has been raised, abused, slaughtered, dyed with food coloring – so as to appear fresh – and placed waiting in cool grocery store aisles. Meat is wrapped in plastic to keep the blood off the consumers’ hands.
But even still, the role of the cook remains sacrosanct. In ship galleys and firehouse pancake breakfasts, as in in the home and over the fire, anywhere they can be observed close up, the cook remains respected. And the cook starting out remains an especially romantic figure.
Regard here in Kingston, the variation that is Jingle John Embree, a fine blue-eyed meat-smoker who hails originally from Arkansas, who this night wears blue jeans, a wide-brimmed hat and a thick brown beard starting to gray.
Jingle John grew up eating a bunch of barbeque, loving barbeque, but not really cooking a lot of it himself. While he moved to New York City in 2003 it wasn’t until 2012 when a friend of his offered him his smoker that he began experimenting in earnest.
“He hit me up, and he says, I’ve got a smoker in my backyard. Do you want it? Yeah, yes. Absolutely I want it,” recalls Embree. “And that was a little Weber. A Smokey Mountain. He later confessed to me that his partner told him if he got rid of the smoker, that he would buy him a new plasma TV.”
Things took their course for Embree, who first threw his own backyard parties in Crown Heights and noticed the guests were pleased with his cooking. This led the upstart backyard smoker to organize trips on the sailboat Ventura in the New York Harbor, where he catered the feast on the water. Next came a partnership in a tiny restaurant in Ridgewood called ‘I Like Food’, where his pulled pork was purchased to use on their sandwiches.
“So that was the first time that I really even started thinking about making it a commercial endeavor,” recalls Embree. “And then my now fiancé and I moved up here to the Hudson Valley in 2019. When she started working at the Stockade Tavern, they asked me if I would be able to make pork. So now still, to this day, you can go to the Stockade and get a Jingle John’s slider along with your cocktail.”
While Jingle John enjoys watching the reaction of the people who eat his food, he politely dismisses the idea there might be any sick or twisted power dynamic at work behind his desire to serve food.
“Not that I’m aware of,” reflects Embree. “ Maybe below the surface. I don’t go to therapy, so I’m unclear.
There’s definitely a pride element in it that I’ve made this the way that I wanted to make it. And then maybe you didn’t even know that you were gonna like it. You wouldn’t have ordered it this way, on your own. But then you went ahead and tried it. And you loved it.”
Serious about smoke
Embree smokes his meat out behind Darling’s Bar and Restaurant in Tillson, an establishment for whom he helped to create the menu. He explained the process days before in a hands-on fashion.
“We have two Oklahoma Joe smokers,” says Embree, “It’s marketed to the backyard barbecue enthusiast, but it’s durable enough that it can take being run every single day. The firebox you see here is attached to the smoking chamber. This particular one is a reverse flow smoker. So the heat source is the firebox.”
From there, the heat and the smoke run the whole length of the smoking chamber underneath the baffle, which is just a sheet of metal. When they hit the far side, they make a U-turn and they come back over the top of the meat. Because of the baffle, there isn’t a hot side next to the firebox, or a cold side. This creates a more even heat and smoke throughout the whole chamber. The heat and smoke go all the way through and come out a smokestack. The key is to keep the smoke moving. If it settles, the meat can become bitter. No one wants bitter meat.
“One of the smokers is designated as a vegetarian smoker. That smoker,” points Embree, “no meat will ever touch, so that you can come and enjoy delicious vegetarian food, knowing that it has not been in an atmosphere that otherwise would have been permeated by pork.”
As a variation on his pulled pork sliders, Embree uses jackfruit, to which he applies similar techniques to those used for the pulled pork. Substituting jackfruit, he says, isn’t about reproducing the texture of meat more than it just soaks up the smoke and takes on all that flavor really well. But it fools some meat eaters all the same.
“The fire and smoke is where it’s at,” says Embree. “They make the pellet smokers and electric smokers and there’s a lot of what I’m doing you could do using some sort of electric appliance. Everything that we’re doing here you can do it with electricity, but there’s no romance in that. You don’t sit around and hang out and tell stories next to an electric stove.”
Which is true. The cook, if he or she wishes, can still prepare food in just the same way as they always have, thousands of generations back past the beginning of recorded history. Outside, under the stars and over a fire. This, Embree does, though is just as likely under the sunlight.
When asked about his own handle, Embree explains.
“My niece. When she was not even two, her first attempt at saying uncle John, she said Jingle John,” Embree laughs with the memory. “And it just stuck. So now there’s a lot of people that call me Jingle John. My niece is no longer one of them. She’ll still call me Jingle John every once in a while just because she knows I like it.”
Embree’s niece is eight now, so there’s still hope as she gets older that she might revert to calling him Jingle John all the time. Kids get serious for a second. They want to throw out their old ways.
“Yeah, she’s not too serious,” says Embree. “She still believes in unicorns.”
Embree aims to make Mondays at the Saltbox in Kingston a regular night, but anyone curious can also find his fine smoked meats at The Stockade Tavern, Von Salad’s Farm and Darling’s.